My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Jan 24, 2017

Despite being made into a movie or television series no fewer than three times (with the latest one being released just last year), I had never heard of Gerald Durrell's personal account of his idyllic childhood in Corfu, Greece until this book was selected as the January pick for my book club.

After hearing it pitched by one of our book club members, I expected something that was light and funny and anecdotal, not necessarily description or fact heavy. What I failed to realize was that this book isn't shelved in the 500's section of the library (that would be the "natural sciences," specifically "zoology") for nothing.

When Gerald's family moves to Corfu from England in 1935, he is ten years old. His father passed away several years before, but the rest of the family consists of his mother, his brothers (Larry, age 23, and Leslie, age 19), and his sister, Margo (age 18). Upon landing in Corfu, they are fortunate enough to meet Spiro, a burly, headstrong Greek, who speaks English and is able to help them find just the kind of villa they're looking for (i.e., one that has indoor plumbing and a bathroom).

They get settled quickly and while Mother is gardening and cooking, Larry is writing, Leslie is hunting, and Margo is sunbathing, Gerry fills his days in the garden and on the hillsides and down by the ocean where he becomes acquainted with all the peasants as well as the animal life. Animals and nature are his first loves and he would rather be outside, lying quietly in the grass, than just about anywhere else.

Sometimes a deadline can be quite beneficial, and in the case of this book, it definitely was. I'm pretty sure it would have taken me at least two months to get through if I'd been reading it at my own pace. As it was, the pace was set for me because I really only had a week to read it, but the first half was so slow-going, I didn't think I was going to make it.

It wasn't that I didn't like it but rather that some of the descriptions of Corfu's animal life were so long and involved and detailed that I was only able to push my way through them by sheer willpower.

At one point, Mike, knowing that I was under a bit of a time constraint, asked, "Is it picking up?" "It's not that kind of book," I answered. There wasn't any plot or major drama, and I didn't expect any to show up.

But then, right around the halfway point, there was an ever-so-subtle shift, and the pace actually seemed to quicken. At first, I couldn't figure out what had caused the change: Larry was still complaining about everyone except himself, Mother was still doing her best to appease and calm family tensions, and Gerry was still bringing home the strangest creatures. On the surface, it seemed like the story was progressing just as it had over the first one hundred and thirty pages.

But I think two things had actually happened: first, by that point, I was really well-acquainted with all of the characters and had, I admit, begun to develop a real fondness for them, and second, the descriptions actually did get shorter, the witty dialogue got longer, and the stories were even funnier, and, if possible, more ridiculous. I usually wouldn't give a book one hundred and thirty pages before giving up on it, but I think I was enjoying it enough (the first half definitely had its highlights) and I really wanted to finish it for book club, and then the payoff came, so I'm so glad I stuck with it.

Let me just give you a little taste of the dialogue since it was the conversations that really made me love the book. This one is between Larry and the rest of the family. Larry, as you've probably gathered from what I've already said, has a very difficult personality. He is arrogant, never admits to any faults, and teases and criticizes his mother relentlessly. And she takes everything in stride and generally ignores his obnoxiousness:

"There should be a law against parking those loathsome beasts [donkeys] anywhere near a house. Can't one of you go and move it?"

"Why should we? It's not disturbing us," said Leslie.

"That's the trouble with this family," said Larry bitterly; "no give and take, no consideration for others."

"You don't have much consideration for others," said Margo.

"It's all your fault, Mother," said Larry austerely; "you shouldn't have brought us up to be so selfish."

"I like that!" exclaimed Mother. "I never did anything of the sort!"

"Well, we didn't get as selfish as this without some guidance," said Larry.
And for all of my early complaining about the long and detailed descriptions, I can't deny that Gerald Durrell has such a mesmerizing way with words that by the end, I almost felt like I'd actually visited Corfu (but instead of satisfying me, it just made me want to see the real thing in person). For example, this: "Lying spread-eagled in the silky water, gazing into the sky, only moving my hands and feet slightly to keep afloat, I was looking at the Milky Way stretched like a chiffon scarf across the sky and wondering how many stars it contained." And just a few paragraphs later, a whole pod of porpoises shows up and surrounds Gerry in a kind of ethereal and moonlit dance, which makes the whole episode even more magical.

Speaking of which, apparently life on Corfu was not as idyllic as Gerry made it out to be, which is, sadly, so often the case with real life. But then, aren't our childhood memories often sprinkled with just a touch more stardust than was actually there? And isn't that a blessing? For me personally, I hope my kids favor the good moments in their memories rather than the bad, and I think that's exactly what Gerry did. I'm sure some stories are embellished, some are idealized, and maybe some are even made up, but I think he got to the heart of what he felt like as a ten-year-old boy on the beautiful island of Corfu, and so in many ways, that's more accurate than if he'd made sure everything was chronologically and historically true to life.

By the end, even the animal descriptions had taken on a certain charm--so much so that when he began laying out the details of a battle between a gecko and a mantid, I was riveted to the page. The setup and relaying of the actual event took up a total of ten pages, and I didn't even care.  I had to see how it turned out.

Even if I hadn't started enjoying the book, finishing it would have still been worth it because the book club discussion was so delightful and wouldn't have been half as fun if I hadn't read the stories myself. We spent a good portion of the evening just reliving some of the funniest moments, and I can't remember a time when I've laughed so much at book club. There were times when I laughed out loud while reading, but somehow sharing those stories with friends who had also read them elevated them to something that was not just hilarious but worth remembering, too. 

One of my very favorite characters was Theodore Stephanides, a doctor and naturalist who becomes very close with the entire Durrell family. He's a bit eccentric, as are all of the characters, but he's also incredibly kind and can't resist telling a good joke. Because he and Gerry both share a love of nature, they develop a special bond, and he is one of Gerry's most beloved mentors.

One time, after sharing an especially ridiculous story about a play gone awry, Larry accuses him of making the whole thing up, but Theodore assures him it was true:

"'Here in Corfu,' said Theodore, his eyes twinkling with pride, 'anything can happen.'"

When I read that line, I knew that was really what this book was all about. Whether the stories are all entirely true or not, the point is that when Gerald Durrell was ten years old, he really felt like in Corfu, anything could happen, and as the reader, I felt like that, too.

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading this book and being charmed; I remember the gecko war; I remember the older siblings. I remember a friend giving me this book and talking about how much she loved it as a child. BUT, it's not in my list of read books. Did I forget to record it? Did I just dream it? I don't remember the dolphin scene, but it would have been about seven years ago. Do I question my memory or my records? Hmm... (Glad it was a good book club meeting!)

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